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20.11.2013 г.

Japan's Policy towards Russia in 2009-2013

Victor Kuzminkov

Late August 2009 saw the first fundamental change of power in Japan for many years. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDPJ), which stayed in power almost continuously since 1955, suffered a crushing defeat in elections for the lower house of parliament from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ).

The victory of the Democratic Party, led by Yukio Hatoyama, inspired a number of politicians and experts to hope for improvement of Russian-Japanese relations. These hopes relied, first of all, on Hatoyama's announcement that he would continue the family tradition of improving relations with Russia, which was associated with his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, who restored diplomatic relations between the USSR and Japan in 1956 by signing the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration.

However, these hopes did not materialize. Almost throughout the period of Democratic rule, political scandals and sharp statements shook the Russian-Japanese relations. All statements by Hatoyama to improve relations with Russia and resolve the territorial issue proved to be merely empty campaign promises. The Liberal Democrats' government did not have a strategy towards Russia of its own and stuck to the position pf its predecessors that made the decision of the territorial issue the key to future cooperation.

The rigid policy of the new democratic government caused a backlash in Moscow. On November 1, 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashir, one of the southern Kuril Islands, which are disputed by Japan. The visit proved a landmark event in the history of Russian-Japanese relations without exaggeration. President Medvedev became the first Soviet and Russian leader to visit the Kuril Islands. On the one hand, the visit of the Russian head of state to the southern Kuril Islands was nothing more than a demonstration of Russia's sovereignty over these territories, but on the other side, it indicted an obvious defeat of Japanese diplomacy. Eventually, the Japanese side was compelled to admit that it had no real means to prevent Dmitry Medvedev from visiting the island, nor did it see any sense in trying to freeze relations with Russia (or had any resources at its disposal to do so).

The formation of the new policy on Russia began in the summer of 2011 after the news that Vladimir Putin would run again for the presidency of Russia. The Japanese establishment is convinced that the territorial dispute with Russia can only be solved by means of a political decision at the highest level. For a political decision on the territorial issue to be taken in favor of Japan called for major Japanese lobbying. The Japanese saw Putin's comeback as an "important signal" to set in motion lobbyist activities in the Russian direction.

An important step on the path of creating a suitable atmosphere for a political solution to the islands issue was the visit to Russia by the former minister of foreign affairs and chairman of the ruling DPJ's Political Council, Seiji Maehara, which took place from April 29 to May 4, 2012

On May 2, Maehara met with three close associates of President Putin. Two of them were old acquaintances of his: Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Sergei Naryshkin, chairman of the lower house of parliament. Of utmost importance, however, was the meeting with the third associate of Putin - the then head of the government administration and professional Japanese scholar Anton Vaino (now the deputy head of the presidential administration). Establishing a personal contact with A. Vaino was an unquestionable achievement of Japanese diplomacy, and is of great importance for the future of Russian- Japanese relations. The direct contact through one of President Putin's closest associates enabled Japanese diplomacy to influence the agenda involving sensitive issues of Russian-Japanese relations, including the problem of the "northern territories."

Although the new democratic government of Japan suffered a series of diplomatic setbacks in the Russian direction from late 2009 to early 2012, which were so significant that Japan practically gave up hope for a return to negotiations on the territorial issue, the key element in its relationship with Russia. The main thesis of the Russian side during this period was that the "South Kuril Islands are a part of Russian territory, and that our sovereignty over them is legitimate and undeniable. Such a principled position of Russia left the Japanese side with no other option than blaming the Russians with "illegal occupation."

With the start of President Putin's second term, the rhetoric and actions of Japanese politicians have softened considerably, however, while the term "illegal occupation" was replaced with a more low-key "occupied without legal justification." Furthermore, lobbyist activities and backroom diplomacy directed at the Russian president and his entourage have become more active. As a result, the Japanese side has obtained confirmation of earlier agreements to continue talks on the territorial issue that the Russian side had refused to do earlier due to the "Russia's indisputable sovereignty over the South Kuril Islands" and the "inviolability of the results of World War II." In light of the progress achieved at the Russian-Japanese summit that the path to peace agreement lies through defining the rights of possession of the South Kuril Islands, the Russian leadership may now find it difficult to appeal to the "inviolability of the results of the Second World War;" having acknowledged the islands problem as unsolved, it has called into question Russia's sovereignty over the islands.
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